Purring – Mr Cameron, the Queen and the British Constitution

bob-morris

Bob Morris reflects on what the Prime Minister’s recent transgression might tell us about the constitutional status of the UK sovereign.

Speaking recently to a former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg – the nearest to Yankee royalty – David Cameron spilled the beans on his own sovereign’s reaction to the Scottish referendum decision to stay in the United Kingdom: ‘She purred down the line’. Does this incident tell us anything about the current state of the British constitution or is it best written off as a trivial prime ministerial gaffe?

For the gaffe view is that the conversation was intended to be entirely private and was picked up by a journalist’s microphone by accident. One might get hoity-toity about whether a relationship of personal confidentiality was transgressed by some immature behaviour. On the other hand, as a Times columnist (Carol Midgley, 27 September) put it ‘indiscretions show politicians at their most human’. David Cameron apologised publicly and vowed to do so personally at his next regular audience with the Queen. Nothing otherwise will eventuate.

Precisely – the incident on the other view illustrates an important, largely unrecognised fact: the UK sovereign has no significant constitutional powers left. The most important – discretion to choose the Prime Minister and the power to grant (and, by implication, withhold) dissolutions of Parliament – have been lost. The first was lost when all political parties adopted internal rules to appoint their own leaders, and post-electoral manoeuvring was rather later made subject to procedures now publicly set out in the Cabinet Manual, which excluded/shielded the sovereign from participation short of recognising the outcome. The second, the power to grant or withhold dissolution, went following 2011 legislation for fixed term Parliaments.

The latter’s significance for the Palace falls to be judged against the view of a former Queen’s private secretary observing that the dissolution power was one that kept politicians respectful:

The power to grant or deny a dissolution in certain circumstances … adds enormously to the wariness with which British Prime Ministers approach the sovereign. (Sir W. Heseltine, ‘The Fabian Commission on the future of the monarchy’, Constitutional Law and Policy Review, February 2004, 84-92 at pp. 86-7).

No doubt David Cameron’s relationship with the current sovereign remains personally respectful, but does the incident show that constitutional respect has now gone? And, if so, what does this bode for the monarchy in the longer term? And what also for prime ministers no longer obliged to show deference?

In other words, far from his remarks being simply a careless gaffe, was David Cameron in fact making an unconscious statement about current constitutional realities? Discuss.

 Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant.At the Unit, Bob has been involved with a variety of interests, particularly FOI. Latterly he has tended to lead on ecclesiastical and royal issues, for example on the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, at the same time contributing to the recent study on Commons Public Bill Committees led by Meg Russell.

British Values? It’s time for schools to give students a future not a catch-phrase

CF-House of Lords July 2010

Andy Thornton argues that the current emphasis ‘British Values’ can only have meaning if it is supported by better citizenship education in schools.

The term ‘British Values’ has emerged as a catch-phrase to denote Britain’s take on liberal democracy. Beyond face-value, its political appeal is clear. It reaches into the UKIP electoral battleground, hinting that today’s Conservatives remain happy to bundle our history and customs into a formula that conjures up ‘the golden age’.

But its arrival in a fracas over school management has to be something of a surprise. It wouldn’t have been too long ago that British schools and British-ness would have been synonymous. Within living memory schools have been under Local Authority control, so how could they not be exponents of British Values?

You may not know it, but a similar discussion arose in 2007 when Gordon Brown asked for a review of the content of the National Curriculum for Citizenship.

Gordon Brown’s concerns were formulated around ‘British Identity’, not values. But similarly he wanted to ensure that the understanding behind the formation of the UK’s democratic structures was being utilised to create a tolerant and inclusive democracy: enabling established residents and newcomers to work together in peaceful coexistence towards the common good. This was of sound purpose as growing diversity in many regions was provoking conflict, and he could see that state schools (93% of all schools) are a critical cauldron in which values are established and competences for democratic life are developed and tested.

The result was that the citizenship curriculum was expanded to contain a section which essentially instructed all schools to tackle issues of identity, diversity and inclusion within the curriculum.

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The Prime Minister must ensure that he gets a chief executive at the centre

peter.riddell-99Peter Riddell argues the idea of appointing a full-time chief executive to lead the Civil Service is correct – provided the responsibilities and authority match the role. There are worrying signs in this month’s announcement that they will not, and we may have the second muddled reorganisation in three years.

There was an inevitability about yesterday’s announcement of Sir Bob Kerslake’s imminent departure as Head of the Civil Service, while remaining as Permanent Secretary at Department for Communities and Local Government until the end of next February. With an activist Civil Service Minister in Francis Maude, the space became too crowded for Sir Bob as the tensions over the pace and scale of reform increased. The political line was about a renewed drive on civil service reform; absolutely right, but it would be wrong to ignore the huge scale of changes since 2010 and the impetus for reform among most senior civil servants themselves.

The real problems in the civil service leadership are structural. It was right in January 2012 to split the functions of Cabinet Secretary and Civil Service Head since no one could perform both roles. However, it was a mistake for Sir Bob to double-hat as Head of the Civil Service and a departmental Permanent Secretary. That created impossible pressures on him, and, in this position, he never had the powers or authority to lead the changes expected of him.

However, yesterday’s announcement confuses as much as it clarifies. Sir Jeremy Heywood will take the title of Head of the Civil Service while maintaining his current responsibilities as Cabinet Secretary. That makes it clear who is in charge and who reports to the Prime Minister, and this we welcome. The problem is that the new chief executive, who will report to the Cabinet Secretary, is not really going to be a CEO of the Civil Service, but, rather, someone who is in charge of civil service transformation, efficiency and reform plus taking over responsibility for running the Cabinet Office. The inclusion of the latter muddles the tasks of running the headquarters operation with oversight of the whole civil service.

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New president, new ‘Constitution’?

Juncker’s election might mark a new phase of European construction. But the Union’s institutional, political and constitutional foundations need renovation, writes Yves Bertoncini.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s election to the post of president of the Commission marks a new stage in the historic process of rebalancing the powers of member states and the European Parliament. Yet it has been accompanied by a fair number of political, institutional and thus also ‘constitutional’ ambiguities which it would be useful to dispel over the coming weeks, and also with a view to the elections in 2019.

1. An election which sets a welcome political precedent, but which is not yet an institutional ‘custom’

Juncker’s election is the result of a gradual evolution set in motion by the Treaty of Maastricht, which countenanced the principle of a compulsory vote of approval for the Commission in the European Parliament. The Treaty of Amsterdam subsequently separated the vote of approval for the Commission president from the vote for his team. It was on that basis that Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa and our European Steering Committee proposed, as long ago as 1998, a new democratic adjustment consisting in pegging the appointment of the Commission president to the result of the European elections by mobilising the European political parties in that sense and, if possible, amending the treaties to reflect that fact.

The Convention on the future of Europe debated this amendment, but its members refused to peg the Commission president to parliament quite so solidly, although they did suggest that the European Council should ‘take the European elections into account’ when appointing the president. Revived in the Treaty of Lisbon, this formula for a ‘constitutional treaty’ was sufficiently ambiguous to fuel conflicting interpretations, borne out by the radical opposition evinced by the British authorities; but at the same time it was sufficiently open-ended to allow the main European political parties to use it to create a balance of forces from which the assembly in Strasbourg has recently emerged the winner.

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Equality, Community and Continuity: Reviewing the UK Rules for Constituency Redistributions – Part 2

The review of Parliamentary constituencies that ended prematurely in 2013 would have resulted in most of the 600 seats contested at the 2015 general election being very different from the current 650. In this second blog based on their research Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie outline why electoral quotas, rather than a reduction in the number of MPs, would be the primary cause of disruption in a boundary review.

The redistributions undertaken by the Boundary Commissions in 2011-2013 were aborted by Parliament for political reasons before their completion, so the 2015 general election will be fought in the current constituencies. But implementation of the 2011 Act was merely delayed until 2016 and a new set of reviews initiated then will, if conducted under the same Rules for Redistributions, be as disruptive to the current map of constituencies as those aborted in 2013. However, this will be primarily due to attempts to introduce electoral quotas, rather than any reduction in the number of MPs.

In seeking to reduce the number of MPs, from 650 to 600, the coalition government was less concerned with the impact on boundaries than in reducing the cost of Parliament.  But as MPs and others saw seats disappear from the map amid the general disruption, the two issues became somewhat conflated.  Surely this reduction had to be part of the cause?  Our research suggests the impact was slight, however.  A few more seats might have escaped change had the number of MPs not been altered, but the causes (and possible solutions) of the major disruption were elsewhere.

The imposition of a single electoral quota plus the reduction in the number of MPs meant that the formerly over-represented parts of the United Kingdom would experience larger decreases in their Parliamentary delegations than others: the number of Welsh MPs would decline from 40 to 30 (a 25 per cent reduction) and Scottish MPs from 59 to 52 (a 12 per cent loss); Northern Ireland’s decline was from 18 to 16 (11 per cent) and England’s from 533 to 502 (6 per cent).

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Equality, Community and Continuity: Reviewing the UK Rules for Constituency Redistributions – Part 1

The review of Parliamentary constituencies that ended prematurely in 2013 would have resulted in most of the 600 seats contested at the 2015 general election being very different from the current 650. The potential disruption alarmed many MPs and party organisations. In the first blog based on their recently published research, Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie assess whether changing the rules for defining constituencies could reduce the disruption to the map of constituencies.

Concern regarding variations in constituency electorates, coupled with a drive to cut the cost of Parliament in the wake of the 2009 expenses scandal, stimulated Conservative Party commitments in its 2010 General Election manifesto to legislate to ‘ensure every vote will have equal value’ and reduce the size of the House of Commons.

Legislation passed in 2011 put that intention into practice and the Boundary Commissions commenced their task of producing a new set of 600 constituencies all, with the exception of four special cases, having electorates within +/-5% of the UK average. They consulted on their proposals and revised them accordingly, but their work was halted by Parliament before its completion because of disagreements within the coalition on the programme of constitutional change. By then, however, MPs and party organisations had become aware that the new system, with its emphasis on electoral equality, disrupted the existing map of constituencies very significantly. Fully 54% of the current seats would be subject to major change, compared to only 30% at the last review, and many more constituencies would cross local government boundaries than previously.

The Boundary Commissions are currently required to begin their task again in 2016, in order to produce a new set of constituencies for the 2020 general election. But the very disruptive consequences of the previous exercise generated questions regarding the nature of the new procedure. Would it be possible to reduce the disruption substantially, yet maintain the general principle of electoral equality, with a more relaxed tolerance around the average? And would there be less disruption if the number of MPs was retained at the current 650, rather than reducing it to 600?

Our research answering these two questions has been recently published, and can be downloaded from the McDougall Trust website. It found that a more relaxed tolerance would reduce the disruption somewhat, but at least one-third of all constituencies would almost certainly have to experience major change – regardless of the size of the House of Commons.

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What does the public really think about democracy in Britain?

New data from the European Social Survey shows that while the British public value democracy many feel the UK government is failing to live up to its democratic ideals. Sarah Butt explores the key findings.

In response to the recent alleged “Trojan Horse” plot to radicalise pupils in Birmingham schools, Education Secretary Michael Gove has called for British values including democracy and the rule of law to be placed at the heart of the National Curriculum.  But what does living in a liberal democracy actually involve? And how confident are we that democracy in Britain lives up to these ideals?  New findings from the European Social Survey (ESS) provide an in-depth look at how well the British public feel democracy in Britain delivers what they think matters most.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the vast majority of people in Britain think that it is important to live in a country that is governed democratically (average importance rating 8.4 out of 10).  However, people are more ambivalent about whether Britain is actually democratic (average importance rating 6.6 out of 10). A significant minority of people (26 %) do not rate Britain above five out of 10 on the democracy scale. There is evidence therefore of a democratic deficit.

High Expectations

The ESS reveals that people have high expectations of democracy.  The survey asked respondents to rate how important – on a scale from 0 to 10 – they considered a number of different attributes to be for democracy.   Most attributes received an average rating of at least eight out of 10 with people believing that democracy, in addition to guaranteeing free and fair elections and protecting civil liberties, should also protect people against poverty and involve citizens in decision-making.

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